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Boston School

Boston School: Louis Kronberg

Louis Kronberg "A Queen of the Orient"

American

Aside from the Hudson River School there is perhaps no other American-bred style of painting that has had as great and consistent an influence as the Boston School of Painting.

The beginnings of the School are traced to post-Civil War Boston and the artist William Morris Hunt, whose European travels introduced Bostonians to French Barbizon and Impressionist painting. At the time Boston was a burgeoning metropolis undergoing an unparalleled period of artistic and cultural growth. Within the last decades of the 19th Century came buildings and institutions that remain dominant cultural icons to this day, including the Boston Public Library, Symphony Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts. These major developments were possible because of the enormous wealth held by the city’s upper and middle class families. It was these same families who created a seemingly unending demand for contemporary painting, especially portraits.

It was the treatment of the portrait by artists like Edmund Tarbell, William M. Paxton, Joseph DeCamp and John Singer Sargent who came to define the Boston School of Painting. In fact, as Monet’s 1872 composition Impression, Sunrise has come to define the start of French Impressionism, Sargent’s 1882 masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is widely regarded as the genesis of the Boston School.

With the Boit painting, Sargent revolutionized the sense of space in a portrait by posing the four daughters in separate stances asymmetrically around the room. In fact, it can be argued the two monumental blue and white Arita porcelain vases are more central to the painting than the daughters. This was undoubtedly by design, as interior décor, specifically as a display of wealth, became an early hallmark of the Boston School.

Many portraitists followed Sargent’s lead, albeit with their own stylistic interpretations, and the School thrived for decades. Modernism, in the form of Cubism, Fauvism, etc., never really took root in Boston in the early 20th Century the way it did in New York and Chicago; instead, the city remained true to “Figurative Impressionism”, where traditional academic training, conservative yet masterful technique and deft use of color and light were combined with the sensuous, fleeting nature of Impressionism. Characteristic appeal of the Boston School is restraint, sophistication and finesse.

The School’s influence may have waned over time if not for the artist Robert Ives Gammell (1893-1981). Gammel was one of the last classically trained American artists and was a student of the great Boston School artist William M. Paxton. While Gammell never achieved proper recognition for his own art, his historical writings and mentorship of the next generation of Boston painters secured Boston’s artistic legacy for years to come.

Last updated: November 13, 2014

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